Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Much more than just the art was moved when the Barnes Foundation relocated its collection from Merion to Philadelphia a year and a half ago. The powers-that-be also packed up and moved the attitude for which the collection was equally famous.

Many people unfortunate enough to purchase memberships in advance of opening day were more than a little miffed to discover that their privileges expired in exactly one year, even though it was months before they could first exercise them. Even more subscribers were angered when repeated phone calls and emails protesting this policy went unanswered.

One anecdote in particular stands out in underscoring just how unreasonable and outrageous the Barnes staff remains.

A friend and her out-of-town companion went to the museum on a summer weekend. Midway through their visit, both went to the rest room. When they returned by the only route available to re-enter the galleries, they were told to stand in line and wait to be admitted.

They explained that they’d already been admitted earlier and simply went to the rest room. The attendant wouldn't budge.

For years, the old Barnes restricted the number of people who could enter the institution at any given time. Even certain kinds of footwear were restricted. Visitors were eyed with suspicion. Many residents in the immediate Merion neighborhood objected to the numbers of cars (not to mention buses) parked along Latches Lane.
Apparently the new Barnes continues to view attendance as a necessary evil.

Then, of course, there are the eccentricities of the collection itself. For every fine Matisse or C├ęzanne, the Barnes offers mind-numbing quantities of saccharine Renoirs. For every fine Glackens, there are pedestrian others. 

Albert Barnes knew a stick in the eye when he saw one. All of that hardware sprinkled among the paintings, hinges and other pieces of medieval ironwork purporting to support his peculiar notion of art were transferred to the new location with absolutely no changes permitted.

It’s all of a piece: the bizarre theories and uneven quality of work, coupled with indifference spilling over into outright hostility. Then and now, the Barnes is no unalloyed pleasure to visit. The people who run it have maintained that tradition! 

A version of this first appeared in the Broad Street Review.

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